THE BLOG
04/18/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Clay Shirky is Right: Newspapers' Death is Journalism's Loss

For journalists of a certain vintage, these are the days on the digital horizon that were long-feared and yet somehow unanticipated. The newspaper world is slowly asphyxiating, starved for the oxygen of classified advertising and simultaneously kicked in the chest by a massive recession that is hastening the tombstones in the graveyard of newsprint. The 148-year-old Seattle Post-Intelligencer will publish its final print edition this week. Huge cutbacks were approved by the staff of the San Francisco Chronicle in an attempt to save the 144-year-old daily. The Rocky Mountain News in Denver closed last month. The publishers of the Minneapolis Star Tribune and both the The Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News filed for bankruptcy. The Christian Science Monitor has abandoned print, for a small online operation that keeps the name alive - for now. The survival of even The New York Times is openly debated.

I could go on, but it's too painful. I come from a newspaper family, and worked as a reporter and editor for more than a dozen years, before peeling off for the allure of my own digital printing press in the 90s. I love newspapers, and I've always believed that they're central to the American version of representative democracy - a stalwart check on the power of government.

Yet even with ink in my veins and newsprint in my DNA, the patterns are changing 'round here. On the days that I commute into midtown on the train, The Times is an absolute and granite-carved morning habit. Liberated from its blue bag and advertising inserts at the station, the pattern is as unyielding as the order of the stations: the A section in the Bronx, sports by 125th Street, business in the tunnel, arts and lifestyle at a glance before hitting the platform. But on the days when I work from home - and even on Sundays - much of the paper arrives in the medium I'm typing into right now, and it often arrives via feeds or links from blogs and aggregators. Further, I'm often found reading commentary and reaction about stories in the Times before I've actually read the stories themselves.

Crowdsourcing journalism is all the rage, but the idea of its widespread ascendancy and competence is the exclusive province of either deranged optimists or ideological cyberlibertarians; the vast populace will never produce great journalism - or even sufficient journalism of the kind that has nurtured our republic - any more than it will perform surgery on a widespread amateur basis, or turn out competent oil paintings by the millions.

Yes, occasionally brilliant exceptions will be appear; the tools available for creating and disseminating great stories will be put to good use by people with the talent for reporting and telling those stories. But the journalistic print edifice will be not be replaced - in my view, there will be no great metro bureaus, no overseas reporting staffs, no full-time investigative teams, no cop house reporters, no City Hall beat. A network of thousands and thousands of young reporters taking notes and asking tough questions - and then writing up their reports in public, for the public - at thousands and thousands of school board and town council meetings on gray Tuesday evenings all around the nation will begin to fade.

The Internet has been a destructive force for many business models, but none threatens the basis of the  republic as much as the digital knife busily sawing at the fraying Achilles tendon of American newspapers. As an editorial in the Spokane Review (rather plaintively) asked:

"So as newspapers die, it's worth considering the effects on society. Who will tell the people what their institutions are doing? Who will ferret out the corruption? Who will fend off the legal challenges to public information? If no viable alternative emerges, what does that mean for our representative democracy?

Author and NYU professor Clay Shirky wrote a grim and all-too-accurate assessment of journalism's dire strait, a piece that  really places no blame but captures well the doomsday formula now unfolding:

The unthinkable scenario unfolded something like this: The ability to share content wouldn't shrink, it would grow. Walled gardens would prove unpopular. Digital advertising would reduce inefficiencies, and therefore profits. Dislike of micropayments would prevent widespread use. People would resist being educated to act against their own desires. Old habits of advertisers and readers would not transfer online. Even ferocious litigation would be inadequate to constrain massive, sustained law-breaking. (Prohibition redux.)

As Shirky says, this is not something that proprietors of professional journalism failed to see coming - and they've tried almost every model for revenue generation that came along over the past decade and a half. All have failed. Case in the point: the Times, which gets an amazing 20 million visits to its website every month and still can't come close to touching the revenue of its wounded print sibling. And aggregators from Google to the Huffington Post shave that slim online revenue even further.

The models just don't work - nothing online sustains a newsroom of 100 reporters and editors working in a beat system. Cut and paste works online. Endless commentary works online (but only pays the aggregators, in most cases). Endless links work. Newsrooms do not. As Shirky writes (correctly in my view) the casualty isn't so much the newspaper (and the companies who operate them), as it is the journalist - and professional journalism itself. And that is a huge loss for society that no one should be welcome with glee (though some digital triumphalists cannot seem to restrain themselves):

Print media does much of society's heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone -- covering every angle of a huge story -- to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren't newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to talk radio hosts to bloggers. The newspaper people often note that newspapers benefit society as a whole. This is true, but irrelevant to the problem at hand; "You're gonna miss us when we're gone!" has never been much of a business model. So who covers all that news if some significant fraction of the currently employed newspaper people lose their jobs?

I don't know. Nobody knows. We're collectively living through 1500, when it's easier to see what's broken than what will replace it. The internet turns 40 this fall. Access by the general public is less than half that age. Web use, as a normal part of life for a majority of the developed world, is less than half that age. We just got here. Even the revolutionaries can't predict what will happen.

Craig Newmark, creator of the ubiquitous classified network that has hurt the newspaper model, argues that "we need to experiment a lot more" on ways to support the kind of journalism now getting pink-slipped. But I have to say: we've all been making that argument since the mid-90s. The experiments are legion. Yet the corps of full-time paid journalists is shrinking rapidly, and their work cannot be replaced by bloggers or posts on Facebook, as much as may enjoy those social media forms. I was talking with James Wolcott about this earlier this week and he made a great point - who's going to churn out all those important but relatively small-scale exposes on bad government contracts and neighborhood graft, the kinds of pieces regularly published by the tabloids and small city dailies? As Bob Stein writes, apropos of reporting's demise: "For journalism, the goal has never been cosmic verities but everyday truth."

Last year at the Personal Democracy Forum, NYU professor and media critic Jay Rosen gave a talk about the rise of semi-pro journalism that took in some of the still-arrogant attitude of "old journalism" and its resistance to going to way of the dinosaur. He adapted the talk for his blog:

We are early in the rise of semi-pro journalism, but well into the decline of an older way of life within the tribe of professional journalists. I call them a tribe because they share a culture and a sense of destiny, and because they think they own the press-- that it's theirs somehow because they dominate the practice.

The First Amendment says to all Americans: you have a right to publish what you know, to say what you think. That right used to be abstractly held. Now it is concretely held because the power to publish has been distributed to the population at large. Projects that cause people to exercise their right to a free press strengthen the press, whether or not these projects strengthen the professional journalist's "hold" on the press.

That hold is slipping every day. Yet some of Rosen's set piece, his construction of the central tension in the story, now seems quaint, only nine months later. The attitude of recalcitrant old print journalists doesn't matter any more in this season of shuttered newsrooms. It's not about old journalists versus the rising amateurs. It's about the disappearance of one of the carrying beams of our democracy and what, if anything, will replace it - and the loss of that "everyday truth."

UPDATE: Over at the WiredPen, Kathy Gill has a thoughtful response. She agrees that there is nothing on the horizon to replace newspaper, even while arguing that newspaper-owning companies aren't generally motivated by the public good (true) and that democracy hasn't exactly thrived under the model now disappearing (true, to a degree). These viewpoints are also echoed in some the comments here. Yeah, newspapers aren't public and the big dailies are indeed run by large corporations. But my response is this: that in no way mitigates the loss. Small-scale experiments in online reporting - and we're in 2009, a full 15 years into the mainstream commercial Internet - seem more like the exceptions that prove the rule. What we lose with newspapers is the commonality - that "place" in cities and towns where a good percentage of citizens gathered around news and opinion and recipes for pork chow mein. And Clay Shirky is right - it's a big loss, and there's nothing that can be done about it.

UPDATE II: Will Bunch gets to the heart of an aspect of the "distributed, super-wired world of citizen journalists with blogs will replace newspapers" argument that has been bugging me as well: it's anti-blue collar to its core. Posits Bunch: "I'm trying to point out the unique challenge of preserving journalism and the vital exchange of public information in a Rust Belt city like Philadelphia. A Web-only newspaper might work in the home city of Microsoft, Amazon.com, and Starbucks. In the home city of....lots of civil servants? Not as much. I agree that printed news is a little like dirty bathwater these days, but you can't throw the baby -- a unique, non-transferable readership -- out with bathwater.